I’ll be honest. Growing up, most, if not all of my references to Chinese food were centered around the fusion Indo-Chinese restaurants in India. Here in Iceland, that mantle has largely been occupied by generic chains like Nings, peddling the sweet-and-sour takeaway trope.
Having never been to China, nor had access to Chinese home cooking, I rely on outings to restaurants whilst overseas—accompanied by people far more knowledgeable than me—to taste what authors like Fuchsia Dunlop, and bloggers like Elaine at China Sichuan Food and Maggi Zhu at Omnivores Cookbook describe.
Thanks to Fine Restaurant, the musky intensity of doubanjiang, or the tingly citrus buzz of papery thin, ruby red Sichuan peppercorns, or the exquisite technique of ‘velveting’ meat are no longer a faraway experience. Of the eight traditions of Chinese cuisine—Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan, Anhui, Fujian, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, Fine focusses on Sichuan, with chefs hailing from Chengdu.
Meaty little parcels
A promising hint when walking into Fine, is the absence of the ubiquitous lunch buffet. There are no Buddhas or bottles of hot sauce on the tables, which I take as a sign of confidence. The small menu, helpfully, has beautiful pictures of the dishes for newcomers. Over the course of several meals, I am accompanied by my friend Kunsang, who grew up eating Chinese food. And at each meal, we’re lavishly rewarded.
Fine is one of the few Reykjavík restaurants that make their own dumplings. The jiaozi (1,990 ISK) are meaty little parcels of boiled dumpling cradling juicy pork and chives. The Shanghai shao mai (1,290 ISK), unlike dimsum shumai, are filled with sticky rice, minced pork so fine it barely stands out, and shiitake mushrooms. Hand pleated, they arrive three to a basket, and are intensely earthy; we eat mesmerised, in complete silence.
All the dishes, barring noodle-based ones, are meant to be eaten with rice. When I bring each bite of meat and rice close to my dainty rice bowl, chopsticks force me to eat slowly, and with careful consideration—I slowly understand that there is a purpose for chopsticks that goes beyond utility.
The hand pulled oil noodles (1,990 ISK) are an absolute steal. The Yu-Shiang chicken (2890 ISK) is chock full of wood ear mushrooms. The chilli chicken (2,890 ISK) is dry-fried and fiery, with nubby bits of meat under a glorious mound of dried chillies. Even then, the generous amount of Sichuan peppercorns, strewn like tiny pearls, deliver the distinctive ‘ma la’ (numbing) punch. For diners not used to meat on the bone, this might prove a challenge, but I recommend it nonetheless.
Beyond deep fried shrimp
For a cuisine dependent on knife skills and laborious techniques, it’s ironic that Chinese food is associated with cheap eats. One bite of the sour chilli potatoes (2,690 ISK) proves why this sentiment is wrong. Thinly sliced into matchsticks, the potatoes are remarkably crisp—a quick stir-fry, with nary any heat, this is a dish greater than the sum of its parts.
The Western perception of Chinese food has long been associated with unsavoury generalisations, but Fine is a window to a cuisine whose diversity is rivalled by few. Fine does a fine job of introducing non-Chinese diners to flavours beyond deep fried shrimp. Set aside apprehensions and you’ll be amply rewarded.
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